It’s been our tradition for a number of years now to celebrate Advent by decorating our tree in stages, a little at a time. We do other fun stuff with the kids throughout the week, but each Sunday in Advent is marked by new decorations on the tree.
We get our Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent and begin by decorating the tree with all sorts of fruit. We have apples, grapes, strings of cranberries (or berry-looking beads), and the like. We often have a fruit-themed dinner and/or breakfast for the first Sunday in Advent as well. All of this reminds us of the Garden of Eden, the sin of Adam and Eve, and the fruit of the Tree of Life that has been restored to us in Jesus.
On the Second Sunday of Advent we add salt dough ornaments to the tree along with a variety of different star ornaments. The salt dough and stars remind us of exile, being in a foreign land, and the promise of God to bring the gentiles into Israel. It was of course a star that brought the wisemen from the East to worship Jesus, and that itself is a great reversal of the exile. Instead of Israel being led by foreign kings into the east away from the presence of God (Like Adam and Eve and later the whole nation of Israel), at the birth of Christ we have foreign kings coming west into the presence of God to submit themselves to the King of Israel. Since we’re remembering exile during this week, we turn off music for this week (Ps. 137:1-4).
On the Third Sunday of Advent we put up lights. Lots of lights. Actually, we’ve recently decided to put the lights on the tree on the First Sunday of Advent, but we only turn them on on Sunday. Starting on the Third Sunday of Advent, we put more lights, and keep the lights turned on all day, every day. Jesus is the light of the world who comes to shine in our darkness, so we have a party with the lights, inside and outside.
On the Fourth Sunday of Advent we break out all the gifts, the bows, the ribbons, the stockings, and any of the other snow men or santas or whathaveyous that haven’t made it onto the tree or shelves yet. God has given himself to us in the incarnation, and so it seems fitting to make a big deal about presents and gift giving and bows and ribbons and wrapping paper and stockings.
Part of the point of this sort of tradition is to make Advent fun, but also to add more elements of expection to our celebration. Advent is about remembering that God has come to the aid of his people in the past, remembering that God is faithful to remember his promises and come and save his own. Cheifly this means remembering that our God has come for us in Jesus. And that means that this same God will be faithful to remember us and come for us in our day. He promises to meet us as we gather for worship. He promises to hear our prayers and come to our aid in our distress. And he promises to come at the end of the world and raise us up from the dead and renew all things. But here in the middle of the story, it is important to learn the virtue of joyful expectation, hopeful patience. And our Advent tradition is just one way to practice that.